Warp factor has warped reality

As the countdown starts for SpaceShip One’s attempt at the Ansari X Prize, David Windle reckons they’re the pioneers of history’s real frontiers. Move over Jim and Mr. Spock.

I’ve always had an irrational aversion to anyone describing space as The Final Frontier. What began as a well-crafted catch-phrase in a cult TV show has become so all-pervasive that people in the real world actually believe it and it drives me nuts.

I’ve never analysed it to any great degree, but I suspect a partial cause of this annoyance may lie with a feeling that explorers down the centuries must have felt the same about their own epic, frequently highly dangerous journeys to new territories.

Call me a pedant, but I think it’s much too early in our scientific evolution to be talking in terms of final anythings – frontiers included. There’s so much we don’t know and so much we can’t yet imagine. ‘Facts’ and scientific ‘truths’ that once appeared immutable have a nasty habit of turning out to be so wrong as to be laughable even a few years later.

Having warmed to my task to discover why this innocuous Final Frontier phrase grates on me so much, I’m pretty sure I’ve found the main reason. For me it epitomises science fiction and all the unrealistic expectations that the genre brings to science reality. Decades of exposure to sci-fi haven’t taught us much — other than how to berate the efforts of real-world engineers and scientists as they come to terms with the vast range of problems and complexities involved with space exploration.

It’s hard to be impressed that NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe is nine billion miles away from the launch pad it left 27 years ago, when a star ship could be there in minutes flying at warp speed. What’s the big deal if it and Voyager 2 are on the edge of interstellar space sending back data about an area of our solar system that is the modern-day equivalent of those old maps that simply read ‘Here Be Dragons’, when an inter-dimension drive can take you to a parallel universe – or back in time?

There is of course an argument that science fiction drives real science forward. I accept that it can happen, but I don’t accept that it’s the norm. Indeed, what worries me is that the time lag between what can be imagined and what can be achieved is often so long and the work involved so complex and hard that young people’s imaginations aren’t being fired up enough to want to take on the burden of turning fiction into reality.

Yes, Arthur C Clarke published his proposal for the geostationary satellite back in 1945, but it was a further 20 years before Early Bird, the first commercial geostationary communication satellite was launched. Twenty years of hard work to create advances in rocket and electronics design and innovation.

Today we take instant global communications for granted, but that would not have happened if people had simply sat around thinking how ‘cool’ Clarke’s idea was and then turned back to reading more sci-fi.

When it comes to space exploration as opposed to other areas of life where sci-fi has cast its dark, cynical shadow, there are special problems. One of the most fundamental is conceptualising its sheer scale. Renowned astronomer, the late Sir Fred Hoyle once famously remarked: ‘Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.’ Hoyle wasn’t minimising the problems of getting there, just graphically removing space’s perceived remoteness in the eyes of the general public.

Getting into space, even low-Earth orbit, has always been problematic. An hour’s drive it may be, but the hurdles to be cleared to get there and back safely are not for the faint-hearted. From the early days of manned space flight to the semi-reusable American Space Shuttle, access to space has always been the domain of government agencies and achieved at great expense.

That’s all changed now. On 21 June 2004 SpaceShip One piloted by Mike Melvill flew into the history books as the first privately funded manned space mission. Headed by renowned aerospace designer Burt Rutan and funded in the main by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to a tune of around $20m (£11m), the American Mojave Aerospace Ventures proved that a private company could put a man into sub-orbital space without vast and costly infrastructure or government involvement.

Just days ago the firm gave its official 60-day notice that it will make its first attempt at the Ansari X-Prize on 29 September at the Mojave Airport Civilian Aerospace Test Centre in Mojave, California. The $10m (£5.5m) prize is on offer to the first team to fly a low-cost reusable vehicle to an altitude of 100km carrying one pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers. The craft must also be flown twice safely within two weeks.

Aside from wishing Burt Rutan and his team all the luck in the world and beyond, we shouldn’t forget to extend similar thoughts to the other 25 or so teams named as competitors. Without funding, most of these proposed spacecraft will never lift off from the drawing board, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great ideas to be found in their plans.

Whether Rutan pulls it off or not, one thing is clear – engineers around the world are working at developing the space-age equivalent of the covered wagons, steam trains, boats and planes that opened up all the frontiers in history. These weren’t bespoke vehicles for the super-rich, but functional, no-frills transport that helped ordinary, real people to achieve extraordinary real things.

David Windle is a freelance technology and aerospace writer.